WISE RIVER CLUB SERVES UP GOOD EATS, BASIC LODGING, AND AN ADULT BEVERAGE CONCOCTION CALLED THE GUIDE’S DRINK Wise river: H Bar Cafe and Saloon ($$, 406-832-9292) has more than the standard Montana cuisine, with treats that aren’t always easy to come by on road trips. The H Bar J builds true mixed-green salads with fresh veggies and fruit garnish. The homemade pizza is tasty, too, but served on Sundays only. The head cook takes pleasure in making and serving the fresh fare, which can be enjoyed in the refurbished dining room or adjacent saloon.
Wise river: Like many Montana saloons, the Wise River Club ($, 406-832-3258, B/L/D) is a guides’ hangout with burgers so big (6 to 8 ounces) they might require two people to reel ’em in. Go for any of their sides, like the green salads and hand-cut fries. Belly up to the bar and learn what the trout are hitting from local outfitters, who arrive soon after the last cast for a cold beer or Moscow mule in a copper mug. The club is divided between a small cafe and large bar. Mounted on the bar’s ceiling are the impressive antlers of a single bull elk that lived a prosperous life for more than two decades in a corral across the highway. After an evening of good eats, pool or shuffleboard, you can retire upstairs to one of seven spartan rooms each with double bed (communal bath and shower down the hall) for around $75 a night.
Lemhi and Bannock Passes (65 miles)
Numerous passes cross the backbone of the Rocky Mountains, but only one was taken first by the Lewis & Clark Expedition: Lemhi. And four of the party, including Meriwether Lewis, did it twice.
The intrepid explorers reached this point after boating up the Missouri River, taking the Jefferson River at what is now Three Forks, and continuing up the Beaverhead River past contemporary Dillon to the confluence of Red Rock River and Horse Prairie Creek, where they hunkered down at what they called Camp Fortunate, now the site of Clark Canyon dam and reservoir. The expedition then continued up Horse Prairie Creek into the towering Beaverhead Mountains.
On August 12, 1805, Lewis and three members of the party, including Sacagawea, took an old Indian road over the Continental Divide into present-day Idaho in hopes of meeting the Shoshone Indians and trading for horses for the next phase of the journey to the Pacific. Lewis thus became the first US citizen to cross the Continental Divide. Once there, he saw what we see today: majestic mountain range after mountain range, running southeast to northwest. He assumed erroneously, it turned out that the trickle of cold water at the summit was the uppermost headwaters of the Missouri River. A day later, they met up with the Shoshone, ostensibly saving the expedition from a brutal winter. Two weeks later, the entire Corps of Discovery crossed the pass into Idaho.
Today this section is known as the Lewis & Clark Backcountry Byway and Adventure Road. To get a flavor of perhaps the most arduous part of the journey, travel south of Dillon on Interstate 15 to Clark Canyon Reservoir and MT 324. Stop at the Lewis & Clark Camp Fortunate Overlook and Interpretive Site along the lake shore about one mile into the drive.
Continue west on MT 324 through Grant about 20 miles through valley ranchlands until the turnoff for Lemhi Pass, at a picnic area called Shoshone Ridge. Turn right and begin the 9-mile ascent on gravel to the pass, where you’ll be rewarded with magnificent views of Idaho’s
Lemhi and Lost River Ranges along with the 480-acre Lemhi Pass National Historic Landmark. The final 4 miles are rugged, steep, and narrow, so high-clearance vehicles are advised. The 7,323-foot pass, named for a king in the Book of Mormon, has a stone monument and information kiosk, and from there the road descends on an even more rugged, steep, and narrow course to Tendoy, Idaho, along Agency Creek.
Less intriguing, and definitely less challenging for your vehicle, is 7,684-foot Bannock Pass, about 20 miles southeast of Lemhi, also on the Montana-Idaho border. Getting there from Dillon is similar to Lemhi, except continue on MT 324 at the Lemhi Pass Road turnoff and stay on the pavement another five miles until it becomes gravel at Donovan Ranch. It’s a straight, well-maintained 10-mile shot along an old railroad grade to a strikingly arid summit that’s more of a bump than a pass, where the road becomes paved again for the gradual descent through desert to Salmon, Idaho.
Note: This modest pass is not to be confused with Bannack Pass, which is about 35 miles southeast of Bannock and also crosses the Continental Divide separating Montana and Idaho.
Dillon: When Brett Maki grew up in the Beaverhead Valley, Dillon was a steak-and-whiskey cowboy town. It still is, of course, but the world is changing, and when Maki returned to town in 2011 after 10 years in Seattle, he saw a community ready to broaden its horizons. The result is Beaverhead Brewing Company ($, 406-988-0011), which is open 8 am to 8 pm daily in a renovated building downtown. Beaverhead has six year-round brews on tap and four seasonals. Look for periodic music events.